MLB’s best teams keep pulling away from pack

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As this week unfolds, baseball has effectively seen half of its regular season schedule played. And a glance at Monday morning’s standings shows this year of the “haves and have-nots” continues.

With the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Mariners all on pace to win 103 games or more while Baltimore, Kansas City and the White Sox are on pace to lose 105, one could suggest MLB looks to resemble the NBA. Teams at the top seem to remain there season after season and those at the bottom also experience extended periods of futility.

The NBA recently concluded with Golden State and Cleveland meeting for a fourth straight season in the NBA Finals. While it is a remarkable achievement for any one team to make to back to back Finals, much less four in a row, it is almost incomprehensible that two teams would accomplish that same feat over an identical time frame.

In theory it should be easier to accomplish such a feat in basketball as one outstanding player, representing one fifth of the talent on the court at any one time, can have a huge impact on the outcome of many games over the course of a season.

Baseball is different. Even though managers may trot out pretty much the same lineup day after day there will usually be a significant difference in the quality of the starting pitcher, on a day to day basis, who will have an impact for, usually, at least the first half of a given game.

Thus it is much more difficult for any one team to make repeated trips to the post season and, ultimately, the World Series. That makes what the Atlanta Braves did from the early 1990’s to the mid-2000’s one of sport’s most impressive accomplishments – winning 14 Division titles in 15 seasons.

The stretch ended in 2005, and in the dozen seasons since Atlanta has won just one Division title and earned two other trips to the Playoffs via the Wild Card route. Their last Playoff appearance was in 2013. From 2014 to 2017 Atlanta had four straight losing seasons, compiling a record that was a cumulative 75 games below .500.

This season was expected to be another of rebuilding as Atlanta began several years ago upgrading the talent throughout its system. But at the halfway point the Braves’ progress appears well ahead of schedule. Atlanta started this week not just in first place in the NL East but with a record of 48-34, good enough for a three-game lead over another team on the rise, Philadelphia.

The Braves are on pace to win 95 and, if attained, would represent an improvement of 23 games over last season’s 72-90 record.

Leave things alone

Baseball is considering doing a major tinkering of the rules and, in my opinion, it is a terrible idea. There has been much discussion over the past few seasons regarding the defensive shift being used by many teams against hitters who have shown a very strong tendency to put the ball into play either to the left side of the infield or to the right side of the infield, showing an inability to “go the other way.”

In this defensive alignment three of the four infielders are lined up on one side of second base with the fourth infielder positioned roughly two thirds of the way between either first or third base and second base. This creates a huge gap between the corner base and that fourth infielder for the batter to slap a ball into that wide open area or to lay down a bunt. Either tactic would almost always guarantee the batter would make it to first base safely.

While some criticize the shift as unfair, it boggles the mind to understand just what is exactly unfair about it. It is all part of defensive strategy.

By overloading one side of the infield to take something away (the batter’s ability to get a base hit by hitting a grounder to an area toward which he always hits the ball) the defense is opening up another part of the playing field to challenge the hitter to make an adjustment.

No edge is gained that cannot be counteracted.

The solution is simply for batters to learn how to hit the opposite way or, in lieu of that, learn how to drop down a bunt that fielders will likely be unable to reach in time to throw the batter out. Outlawing the shift is a lazy solution when there are ways to overcome that strategy.

Here are thoughts on three series this weekend.

Atlanta at Milwaukee

Bullpens may play a major factor throughout the four-game series that starts Thursday. Atlanta’s best starters have been Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb with veteran Anibal Sanchez also having a much better than expected season. Milwaukee’s best starter has been Junior Guerra with 22-year-old rookie Freddy Peralta showing very well in his five starts. Atlanta’s offense has been somewhat more productive with NL MVP leader Freddie Freeman leading an offense averaging 5.0 runs per game.

Both teams have been extremely profitable at the betting windows this season with Atlanta backers up 15.2 units and Brewers backers up 11.4. Clearly these are not “play ON” teams and as such make for good underdog plays. Look to back the Braves in starts by Foltynewicz or Newcomb if facing other than Guerra or Peralta and vice versa for backing Milwaukee.

In a matchup of two of those four name starters look to playing both the Underdog and UNDER 8.5 or higher. Otherwise play any of the four against other starters if laying no more than -125. Milwaukee has been a strong UNDER team with Guerra’s 15 starts producing an 11-4 edge. The best situation for an OVER would be in a start by Milwaukee lefty Brent Suter who’s gone 11-4 to the OVER. Not facing Newcomb or Foltynewicz look OVER 8.5 or lower in a start by Suter.

Oakland at Cleveland

Cleveland has the solid edge in pitching, especially with their starting rotation that is anchored by Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. Both are averaging 6.7 Innings per start, which puts less pressure on the bullpen when they take the mound. Mike Clevinger has also contributed nicely for Cleveland.

Oakland’s staff has been battered by injuries and only two pitchers have made double digit starts. One of those, Daniel Mengden, is now on the DL. The other is Sean Manaea who was brilliant in April, struggled in May and bounced back nicely in June.

Veterans Edwin Jackson and Chris Bassitt have filled in capably in recent weeks with the well-traveled Jackson pitching extremely well in his 2 starts.

Cleveland has feasted on its weak AL Central opponents, having played nearly half of its 82 games within its Division. To be fair, Oakland has struggled against the two top teams in its Division (AL West) going just 4-14 against Houston and Seattle. Still, Oakland will be an attractive underdog as Cleveland should be heavily favored throughout this series. In a start by Manaea, look to play Oakland if getting +180 or more against Kluber, Bauer or Clevinger or +130 not facing other Cleveland starters.

To back Bassitt or Jackson the A’s would have to be +200 or more. Otherwise look to back Cleveland with any starter against other than Bassitt, Jackson or Kluber, playing the Tribe at -150 or less and laying the run and a half if the line is greater than -150. Overall both teams have been fairly neutral in Totals play although individual starting pitcher extremes show Cleveland’s Kluber 11-6 to the OVER and Bauer 11-6 to the UNDER. Oakland’s Manaea is 10-5-2 to the UNDER and Frankie Montas 6-1 to the OVER.

LA Dodgers at LA Angels

Both teams have dealt with injuries to their starting rotations. The Dodgers have used 11 different starters and the Angels have used 12. Of those currently healthy, lefty Tyler Skaggs has been the Angels’ most effective starter (2.64 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 5.7 IPS) with both 21-year-old Jaime Barria and veteran Andrew Heaney pitching competently. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been “merely mortal” as he’s battled through injuries that had him on the DL. His 2.84 ERA and 1.14 WHIP are solid but he’s averaging just 5.7 IPS.

Ross Stripling has been very solid through his dozen starts and both Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda have fared decently. The only starter to feel comfortable about backing would be the Dodgers’ Kershaw who, understandably, is likely to be overpriced. Yet if he somehow is favored by -150 or less he can be backed against any Angels starter. Otherwise look to back the hosts, especially as underdogs, but also if favored by -125 or less.

The Total may be the better play throughout this series with OVER 8.5 or less (in a start not involving Kershaw) being the attractive option. Look for the Angels to take two of three with the Dodgers doing the same at home next weekend.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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